Looking back after a dramatic change, assuming all records of events have not been destroyed or concealed and the available historical record wiped clean, as when a new regime in ancient Egypt would scrape the faces off tomb walls and erase from history and the afterlife the prior regime that also claimed to have been chosen by the gods, it becomes much easier to see cause and effect. Looking at a timeline, the connection between seemingly disparate events emerges. The events can be seen, after the fact, as steps in a clear pattern that led, seemingly in a straight line, from one thing to another.
Experiments in democracy are not immediately cancelled when an autocratic party takes control. There are leaders of the opposition to be silenced, beaten up, discredited, removed from public view. There is the shaping of public opinion, which must be done strongly and systematically. There is the criminalizing of dissent, which becomes treason, a terrible crime justly punishable by severe penalties including death. After enough struggle, with violent safeguards against rebellion firmly in place, a new society can be born, a culture based on values inculcated through years of hard work by the new leaders, their ideologues and financial backers, and the party faithful.
One template for looking at how this change comes about is the transition from democracy to totalitarianism in Germany last century. It was the farthest thing from a historical certainty, though the stars were lined up perfectly for it and it seems inevitable today. A hundred years ago the forces of the extreme right in Germany were starting to brawl with crowds of armed leftists in the streets in a nation on the verge of revolution. The liberal Weimar Republic, which at the time had the world’s most enlightened democratic constitution, was ill-equipped to enforce its laws and new democratic values in the face of mounting despair after a humiliating military defeat, increasing financial desperation and political violence and propaganda. The stage was set for a decade or more of pitched battles at political rallies before the fateful late 1932 election when the Nazi party won its largest share of the votes ever in an open election, 37%. After March 1933 the Nazi vote total was a constant 100%, once it became the only party in Germany.
The history of the end of German democracy in 1933 is well-known to anyone who has read any of the numerous books on the subject, or seen a history of World War II documentary. Let’s take a quick look at few selected moments from the timeline, for a sense of how long it takes — how many years it takes, even in the perfect petri dish for the change that was Germany in the 1920s, the early 30s — before the proposed solutions of cynical autocrats become irrevocable and final solutions.
The German military refused to take part in the surrender of November 1918 and its leaders afterwards helped perpetuate the myth that an undefeated German army had been stabbed in the back by the “November criminals”, the treasonous liberal members of the new Weimar democracy who signed the punitive peace treaty that led in a straight line to World War II. General Kurt von Schleicher was a top military leader in World War I who, after refusing to participate in the humiliating surrender, pushed this narrative and sought political power in the turbulent years leading up to the Nazi takeover. He was regarded by many patriotic right wing Germans as a national hero.
Fast forward to January 1933 and the calculations of the German right wing, including Schleicher, that 84 year-old general Paul von Hindenburg was a strong enough president, with robust powers to appoint or dismiss the chancellor under the law at that time, to control the uneducated, emotional leader of the Nazi party. Hitler became Chancellor, appointed by President Hindenburg, serving at his pleasure, as they say. History shows unambiguously that the idea that Hitler could be tamed by his social superiors and restrained by others on the right was wildly wrong.
In February 1933 the German parliament building, the Reichstag, was set on fire. That night, in a coordinated nationwide sweep, the police, on orders of Herman Göring (who was busily putting together the Gestapo) arrested hundreds of people whose names had been on Nazi enemies lists for a while. The following day, in an emergency session of the Reichstag, the constitutional provision for political emergencies was invoked and an Enabling Act was passed with bipartisan support, giving the Chancellor vast emergency powers he never relinquished. There were several major parties, all of the right and center, and center-left parties voted with the Nazis. Think of the rush of support from across the American political spectrum for the massive, “patriotic” Patriot Act hastily passed by our Congress after the al Que’da attacks of 9/11/01. In the name of fighting “terror” terrifying compromises can be made by otherwise decent and well-meaning politicians.
After the Reichstag fire, and with the invocation of emergency powers and passage of the Enabling Act that made it all legal, Hitler was the all-powerful unitary executive in Germany. His word, and increasingly his whim, was effectively constitutional law for the next twelve years, under the enhanced emergency powers he invoked after his party set fire to the Reichstag. He exercised those powers wantonly, sometimes insanely, until that fateful day in the bunker under Berlin when his enemies were closing in from all sides and he declared Germany too weak not to deserve its total destruction. And then blew the top of his head off with a pistol in his mouth after killing his new wife and faithful dog.
Here’s the thing that caught my eye, the passage of time before the Nazis took the next violent, decisive step, even after they had what we now see as unchallengeable power. In some cases, like the eventual program to physically exterminate the Jews, this took five to seven years. Public sentiment has to be carefully and systematically cultivated before previously shocking proposals can be seen as “normal”. Think of the frogs in the pot of slowly heated water, realizing too late that they are becoming frog soup and there’s nothing they can do about it.
After Hitler became the undisputed leader of Germany it was more than a year before the chilling “Night of the Long Knives” on June 30, 1934. On that night, in coordinated nationwide raids, the leaders of the brawling SA, the three million man army of violent Nazi brownshirts (including a contingent of working class socialists) that had been crucial to the rise of National Socialist Hitler, were killed. The newly formed SS would be the strong right arm of Hitler going forward, its members bound to Hitler by an oath of unquestioning personal loyalty to their Fuhrer.
Here’s the thing that jumped out at me about the gradual escalation of autocratic violence, listening to the audiobook of Benjamin Carter Hett’s well-done The Death of Democracy.
On that fateful night of orchestrated murder in June 1934, two armed men showed up at General Kurt von Schleicher’s house. He was a well-known national public figure, of the stature of a General Patreus, or Colin Powell, or some of the generals who once sat as members of Trump’s cabinet, to some Germans almost like Quaseem Soliemani in Iran. He was regarded by many on the German right as a national hero. The Nazis who went to his house found him in his office, shot him dead at his desk and also killed his wife, who was also in the office when they found Schleicher.
The story in the Nazi-controlled press was that Schleicher had died in a gunfight with police, resisting arrest (it went without saying that he was a dangerous criminal who needed to be taken into custody to face justice). The Nazis had fired on him in self-defense, returning fire, the stories said, and his wife had been killed in the crossfire, what we now blandly call “collateral damage”. That was the story trumpeted on German mass media right after the killing. Within a few weeks Hitler could nonchalantly tell German crowds at rallies “I had Schleicher shot.” The clear message being: what the fuck are you going to do about it, or Nazi lies about it, traitor?
The Nazis are famous for their wholesale, industrialized slaughter of Jews and other enemies. We have all the factual details about the sometimes disputed “Final Solution”, the evolving improvised mass murder program that ended in very efficient death camps, gigantic mass killing facilities. In hindsight we think: Nazis seize power, start World War II, perpetrate Holocaust. Each of these things was many years in the works. Each proceeded by many small steps, over time. Over years.
Some will remember Kristalnacht, “The Night of the Broken Glass”, the nationwide Nazi-sponsored orgy of violence against Jews across the country. That was in November 1938 (probably organized around the 20th anniversary of the famous Jewish orchestrated “stab in the back” by the “November Criminals”) more than five years, almost six, after Hitler’s seizure of dictatorial power under a legal provision of the Weimar Constitution.
It would be several more years until the actual mass killing of Jews would begin in the territories conquered by the German army. Ditches and machine guns, trucks with exhaust pipes directed inside to kill undesirables with carbon monoxide, these crude methods were not up to the daunting task of killing millions. The kind of plan the Nazis eventually devised and put into operation does not happen overnight, or in a year, or even in five years. It takes time. People have to accept every step leading up to it. First you euthanize the mentally ill, see how that goes. You stop the euthanasia program due to public outcry and there is more work to do to convince everyone of the necessity for ridding the earth of dangerous human parasites eternally intent on raping German women and poisoning the gene pool. The public eventually falls into line, but it can take years sometimes.
Then, suddenly, one day, you have Adolf Hitler, full-blown, the way history remembers one of its most successful and prolific liars and mass murderers.